CUP’S NEW HOME WILL BE WARM
AS STARS, LIGHTNING MEET, NONTRADITIONAL MARKET WILL HAVE REASON FOR JOY
EDMONTON, Alberta — The leaves are starting to change color around the NHL playoff bubble, and, at most, seven games remain before the Stanley Cup is handed out.
On Saturday night, two of the league’s southernmost teams begin a Stanley Cup Final like none other when the Stars and Lightning face off in Game 1 in the Great White North. The Texas and Florida heat that would have been around in late May and June has been replaced by a chill in the air with teams from nontraditional markets vying for hockey’s biggest prize in the northernmost city in the NHL.
“We don’t know what the temperature is outside because we’re never outside, so it doesn’t come into play,” Stars general manager Jim Nill said from the confines of the bubble. “We’re 75, 80 degrees here all the time, so it’s perfect — perfect environment.”
The teams would take any environment for a chance to win the Cup. Stars players, coaches and staff have been here since July 27, and the Lightning joined them Sept. 5 after spending six weeks in Toronto and flying cross-country.
The Stars have waited since finishing off the Golden Knights in Game 5 of the Western Conference final Monday. The Lightning won the East on Thursday night by beating the Islanders in Game 6 of that series on Anthony Cirelli’s overtime winner.
It’s a quick turnaround for the Lightning, who don’t mind that for this opportunity.
“This is unlike any other Stanley Cup Final where we’d get days rest,” coach Jon Cooper said. “If you were going to tell me, ‘Hey Coop, you get to play in the Stanley Cup Final, you’re only going to get 45 hours to rest before the game, but you’re going to get to play in it,’ I’m taking that all day.”
The Stars coaching staff prescouted each potential opponent, with Rick Bowness and assistant John Stevens diving into the Lightning the last few days.
“We’ll be well-prepared,” Bowness said. “There’ll be no surprises.”
This year is full of surprises. After the Lightning skated off with the Prince of Wales Trophy for winning the East, Blake Coleman was asked about his journey from being traded in February with his pregnant wife two weeks from giving birth through to the bubble and said, “It’s been kind of crazy, but whose 2020 hasn’t been crazy?”
The series marks the first time in NHL history that the final features two Russian starting goaltenders. The Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy played in the final as a rookie in 2015, while the Stars’ Anton Khudobin hadn’t started a playoff game until this year.
Nikolai Khabibulin is the only Russian goalie to win the Stanley Cup when he did so with the Lightning in 2004.
“I want both guys to win, but it’s impossible,” Khabibulin said. “I know both guys, so I wish them both well.”
If the Lightning win it all, Vasilevskiy, defenseman Victor Hedman and forwards Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov all have strong cases to earn the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP. For the Stars, it could be Khudobin or captain Jamie Benn, and their leading scorer is actually defenseman Miro Heiskanen.
The 21-year-old Finn is playing beyond his years and skating circles around defenders.
“When I was young kid, I was skating outdoors, so that’s where it’s coming from,” Heiskanen said. “I try to use it as much as I can and try to skate a lot with the puck and without it, so it helps in my offensive game and defensive game.” ✶
Stars left wing Jamie Benn flips a backhand shot past Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy during a game in January. Both teams in the final will start Russian goalies.